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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

DALE DRINNON: Ozark Howlers or Black Howlers

A member at the group Frontiers-of-Zoology submitted an account of her experience with the creature called the Ozark Howler or Black Howler. She had only heard the awful screaming noises it made by night but more material followed, including a composite description of the creature, some bad photos and some good tracks.

This may be a localised giant form of Lynx that runs into a melanistic strain. Melanistic (black) cats appear to be genetically advantaged over their normal-coloured equivalents, and are generally healthier and hardier.

Lynxes and bobcats are of a type where melanism is known, and the tracks are like lynx tracks. Lynxes have outsized feet.

In my drawing, which I made as a comparison, the Black Howler as described is only marginally larger than a Siberian lynx, and here shown in scale comparison to a more average Canadian lynx. There is a great range in sizes among lynxes, as there is in several types of cats.

And by these criteria it would not be an unknown animal. Unusual colour phases and outsizes of known species are not new and unidentified species, just unusual.


Retrieverman said...

Black bobcats are not unknown. http://www.cryptomundo.com/wp-content/black_bobcat_2.jpg

Of course, everyone who sees a bobcat think it's 60 pounds-- or a cougar. There have been 60 pound bobcats, which is actually more than the Canada. The Canada lynx is taller than the average bobcat, but they often weigh about the same. Bobcat vary in their weight quite a bit-- when you get into the subtropics, they are just slightly larger than domestic cats. In my area, they tend to be 20-30 pounds. A big one is a 30 pounder.

Members of the genus Lynx are known for making a lot of noise during the breeding season. The queens can be disconcerting the first time you hear it.

I should say that there is some dispute about the record size for a bobcat. It depends on which official record you endorse. Whether it's a 48 or 60 pound cat, it's still heavier than a Canada lynx.

Here's a big bobcat that was taken in Wisconsin: https://www.uwsp.edu/wildlife/carnivore/Bobcat%20Natural%20History_files/huge%20bobcat.bmp

A big, black bobcat is not out of the question. When a species has a wide range and vary a lot in appearance, it's very easy to think you've run into a new species. That's one reason why I'm very skeptical about new species of wolves in Eurasia and North America.

However, there could have been a species of lynx native to the Ozarks that we didn't document. After all, the Iberian lynx is a unique species and it's very different from the Eurasian (often called Siberian but its range once included Britain and almost all of Europe) lynx.

Bobcats are derived from an early invasion of animal very similar to the Eurasian lynx, which crossed the Bering Land Bridge as early as 2.6 million years ago. Because these lynxes had to compete with lots of large predatory mammals, they began to specialize on smaller prey-- although the bigger ones can still take white-tailed deer that are winter-weakened. The animals became smaller. Most bobcats look like bantamized Eurasian lynxes. The Canada lynx came from a later invasion that specialized in snowshoe hares and remained in the boreal and mixed forests.

It is possible that another species evolved in the Ozarks, but I'm confused as to what advantage a large black lynx would have in that territory. It seems to me that this is well within the variation we have in bobcats. Melanisic wolves and gray squirrels have been found to have this advantage, but for a stalking cat, I don't think the advantage would be all that great. It wouldn't be able to stalk its prey. However, black leopards and jaguar seem to do okay.

I had a very interesting experience with a bobcat when I was a boy. Contrary to what many may think, bobcats can live very close to people. It's one of the keys to their success. However, you very rarely see them-- another key to their sucess. We were driving one night through this little town in West Virginia, when my mother shouted- "Oh my God, it's a leopard!" We had just passed the stoplight in this one horse town, and the cat was actually crossing the main street out of town. Unfortunately for the cat, my dad couldn't stop in time, and he hit the cat, killing it instantly. We collected it, and put the body in the car. (And yes, it was dead! No Harry and the Hendersons story.)

The cat was a big tom, weighing 31 pounds. I remember holding its body and just feeling the power that must have been wielded by those muscles.

And ever since then, I've been a bit of a lynxophile.

And before I get called out on it, yes, bobcats are lynxes. In fact, for the Ozark howler, the fairer comparison would have been with Lynx rufus, rather than Lynx canadensis, which lives far to the north of the Ozarks.

It's an interesting find, but keep in mind that bobcats vary so much that the descriptions may be exaggerations of unusually large black bobcats.

Andrew D. Gable said...

Karl Shuker's also let me know that (bobcats and lynxes as well, I think) have been seen to have long tails as well rather than the nubs they usually have. A melanistic long-tailed bobcat could look A LOT like a small black panther, wouldn't you say?

Retrieverman said...

Long-tailed bobcat: http://www.cryptomundo.com/wp-content/uploads/longtail.jpg

It's not super long, but you can tell it's a bobcat and not a domesticated one-- ear shape, mutton chops.

shiva said...

This and the mention of Native American legends of a "giant lynx that preyed on buffalo" in that other post have got me thinking about possible late survival of Smilodon. While older reconstructions (doubtless influenced by the common description of it as a "tiger") make Smilodon look like a more robust version of a pantherine cat, many more recent ones make it look more like a giant lynx - for example, this one from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Smilodon_fatalis_life-restoration_%2708.jpg (which even gives it the ear tufts and "mutton chops" of a lynx, although presumably on no solid evidence!)

I've never seen a live bobcat, but have seen live Eurasian lynx on several occasions, and they are big - although not "big cat" big, they are as high at the shoulder as a medium-to-large dog, and definitely couldn't be confused with housecats (even short-tailed ones). (Retrieverman, are you sure that picture is of a bobcat and not a Eurasian lynx? It looks at least as big as the captive Eurasian lynxes i've seen, as well as closer in fur colour/pattern to them than to most of the photos i've seen of bobcats.)

A melanistic, long-tailed bobcat would probably look quite a lot like the Scottish "Kellas cats", although those are apparently a local introgressive form of Felis sylvestris that, as well as being black, is larger and longer-legged than usual.

Question: Have there been any confirmed hybrids between bobcat and domestic cat? It seems like nearly every small or medium-sized felid that cat breeders can get hold of has been crossed with domestics to try to produce a new "designer" breed, but i can't find any details on bobcat X domestic crosses, which seems odd given that its range makes it presumably a lot more easily obtainable than things like golden cats or Asian leopard cats...

Jeremiah Fields said...

My name is Jeremy Thomas. I came face to face with this Giant Black Lynx about six years ago, when I was hiking down to Mt Baker Hot Springs alone in early spring. It was stalking me for nearly a half hour, and I thought it was a cougar before I saw it. It was the size of a large dog, jet black, huge muscles on back legs, I saw it during broad daylight when it came out of the woods ahead of me on to the road, I thought I was crazy no one ever believed me this cats are 100 percent real.

Para Palooza said...

Anyone wishing to discuss encounters please contact me.. I'm a native to the area and filming about this.. Howler info is hard to come across